In 1877, adopting the approach developed in Nelson province our Parliament established a nation-wide system of ‘free, compulsory and secular education’ for children between the ages of 7 and 13. Maori need not attend but they had the right if they wanted to.
Introducing the Act, Sir Charles Bowen said, ‘the higher branches of education may be taught upon payment of a fee. … and there is provision for scholarships which enable children of unusual attainments and ability to carry on their education. It is not intended to encourage children whose vocation is honest trade to waste in higher schools time which might be devoted to the learning of a trade.’ This two-way division fastening different expectations has bedeviled our system ever since.
I learnt a hard lesson in my first term teaching. I had a third form English class, bright young country adolescents like alert young puppies, enthusiastic and full of verve. But as the first term progressed they got noisier. Just before Easter they got very raucous, calling out answers across each other. I realised I had to put my foot down, hard. Foolishly I said, "I'll cane the next boy who calls out." Realising I meant it they quietened down.
Near the end of the period a quiet scholarly boy who had never previously opened his mouth unless I asked him a question, called out an answer. "You gotta cane him, sir. You said you would". I knew I had left myself no option. "Outside" Head down he went out before me into the corridor. The phrase ‘this hurts me more than it hurts you’ was never more true. I also knew I could not cane him gently - the class inside waited expectantly. I hit him once. He waited for the second stroke. "That's all. And don't call out again." Back in the classroom someone quietly said, "you only caned him once." "He only called out, once," I replied. The humour eased our mutual unease at the injustice of the situation. They knew he did not deserve the punishment. They also knew I could not lose face. Moral - never utter a general threat, it can collide with justice.